Innovation vs. R&D

Back when I was in grad school I encountered a friend of mine, a doctoral student in a particularly abstruse area of mathematics, looking very crestfallen. “Pete”, I said, “what’s wrong?” He responded “Somebody found a practical use for my research.”

At Bloomberg Noah Smith is concerned that the pace of innovation is declining:

Unfortunately, innovation might be slowing down. Except for a brief resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, developed-country productivity — of which innovation a major long-term driver — has been growing more slowly since 1973. Meanwhile, some studies suggest that research productivity is slowing down, so that it takes more scientists to glean each new insight across a variety of fields…

His proposals for changing the trend include:

  • Give more money to younger researchers
  • Give more money to less prestigious institutions (ROI is better)
  • Devote more money to “novel research fields”
  • Change patent laws to increase the rate at which private research spreads
  • Zoning reform (I don’t follow his reasoning here)
  • Improve our higher educational system

Probably the best way to improve our system of higher education would be to improve our system of K-12 education—colleges and universities devote too much effort to remedial education as it is.

Some of the decline in innovation is inevitable. We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit. I’ve seen and written about the claim that there haven’t been any basic breakthroughs in 80 years. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I’ll repeat my proposal for increasing innovation: let the federal government fund a mass engineering program. The last federally-funded mass engineering program, the “space race”, produced an enormous amount of innovation. It revolutionize4 our society. Most present federally-funded R&D is medical research and the ROI on that is terrible.

4 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I think we also have to reform how science is done – the incentives today produce bad science.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t follow a lot of thinking on zoning, but I think he believes that innovation is related to concentrations of people, and that regulations precluding concentrations discourage innovation.

    I think this is magical thinking. Houston has no zoning, is it an innovation hub? The heyday of the Massachusetts Technology Highway took place entirely within the context of restrictive zoning in the suburbs, that were attractive to middle class workers. So perhaps his concern is that successful innovation necessarily would take place in a confined, attractive area, ultimately resulting in either harmful effects on equality (exclusion of the Morlocks) or that innovation would eventually stagnate because it won’t scale due to constraints on the concentration of people? In either case these are things that happen at the back end.

  • So, things being more congenial for researchers results in better research? If that’s his reasoning, he’s confused. First, there is no straight line relationship between total amount spent on R&D and results. Gold is where you find it. Second, I see no evidence whatever that making conditions congenial for researchers results in better research.

  • steve Link

    So Bell Labs was not an innovation center? Also, looking a show research is funded it looks like the amount funded buy the federal government has dropped while that of private industry has increased, with the total amount as a percent of GDP staying about even. It certainly looks like your mass project has a decent chance of working based upon past experience. (Before the space race we had WWII.)


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